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Saturday, January 27, 2007

The poem and the apocalypse, part one: Destructive fantasies

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 01/27/07 at 10:51 PM

Recently, a number of different bloggers have begun writing on imaginings of the apocalypse, a theme that continues to haunt popular culture and that has changed in focus since the end of the Cold War.

The fastest way into these discussions is the link here, to N. Pepperell’s Rough Theory site, which points the way to relevant posts at K-Punk, Larval Subjects, I Cite, and elsewhere.

For me, all this goes back to a conversation with two friends about Frank O’Hara.

We were on foot in North Beach, San Francisco, talking about the poets who succeeded the canonical modernists, and my friend S. mentioned how much she loved Frank O’Hara. The conversation (I’m paraphrasing) continued like this:

“But what about global warming?” B. said. “I’m just so tired of reading poems that will add up to nothing when Greenland melts. O’Hara lacks ambition. His poems are monuments to nothing.”

“Well, but I love the intimacy of them,” S. responded. “His poems are like notes written on napkins; he explicitly conceived of them as messages between friends, or between lovers.”

What on earth does Frank O’Hara have to do with global warming? To answer that, we have first to examine the apocalyptic fantasies themselves. That is this post; in my next post, I will bring the matter back to O’Hara and his manifesto on “Personism,” which, according to its author, may be “the death of literature as we know it.”

There are basically two kinds of apocalyptic visions: those where no-one survives (or where the horror that will ensue goes beyond what can be thought), and those where a small, committed band of people fights for survival, usually against other people as well as against a harsh environment.

In the first kind of fantasy, our culture tries to confront its own total lack of response to genuinely troubling developments. Thus, people who believe the worst is coming are portrayed paradoxically as madmen who are mostly or completely in the right. For example, in the second season of the show 24, Kim Bauer is trapped in a fallout shelter with a strange man, at a moment when a nuclear attack on Los Angeles is imminent. The man built the shelter in fear of an attack which is in fact underway, but the drift of the show is that Kim needs to escape him because her father will manage to divert the bomb in time.

Even more telling is George Sibley’s descent into madness in Six Feet Under. We see him staring hopelessly at a computer projection showing when the Earth’s potable water will run out. The show never gives the slightest indication that Sibley’s calculations are wrong, and yet he is portrayed unsympathetically because he has stopped working and relating to his family. As Theodor Adorno once put it, the message is basically to keep going because “the King needs more soldiers.” We are forced to make a false choice between the inaction of paralyzing fear, and the inaction of the status quo.

This false kind of reassurance reminds me of the hilarious subtext of the film Armageddon, in which the Earth is going to be destroyed by a meteor that can only be stopped by oilmen. Thus the symbol of the real environmental threat – the oil rig, and all the environmentally damaging processes that begin there – is defused by the miraculous good luck of a planetoid that the drillers must destroy in order to save our Earth.


In the second type of milennial fantasy, which features a band of survivors, the crucial question is one of ideology. Basic ethical principles, such as altruism and the acceptance of responsibility, become stark necessities, irresistible for every person of conscience.

This is an obvious distortion of the realities of scarcity and disaster. No resurrection of conscience is worth the wholesale destruction of human lives, and the day-to-day misery of the survivors. When, recently, the price of oil more than doubled in this country, we did not experience a sudden return of moral values. Life just got a little more expensive, a little shabbier, for everyone, and a lot harder to bear for working people on the edge of poverty.

What is not distortive about these fantasies is the obvious desire for a common project that will order the world and convoke a community of fellows. This is the world-swallowing equivalent of what Malcolm Gladwell, in his self-help book Blink, calls “thin-slicing,” meaning “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience” (23). Gladwell’s thesis is that professionals who can perform quick, successful analyses in the field do so by figuring out how to separate relevant data from distracting, misleading noise...and by doing this on the level of unconscious reflex.

Of course, the very notion of “relevant data” comes from having a goal, which is why Gladwell uses almost nothing but occupational examples. Goal-oriented thinking is literalized in apocalyptic fantasies, which is why many of these fantasies make such heavy use of road and path imagery. The most obvious example is Cormac McCarthy’s new novel The Road, but I am also thinking of the journey to the sea in Children of Men, and the journey to Earth in Battlestar Galactica (with anybody who strays from that path lost to the vicissitudes of space).

This kind of ideological thin-slicing is understandable for two reasons. First, many people have the alienating experience of doing work that seems meaningless and irrelevant. Sinthome, a practicing psychoanalyst who blogs at Larval Subjects, writes that he began

...encountering patients whose sexual and amorous fantasy life was deeply bound up with visions of apocalypse or the destruction of civilization. For instance, I would encounter patients who had all sorts of fantasies about post-apocalyptic settings such as life after an eco-catastrophe, nuclear war, a massive plague, or a fundamental economic and technological collapse, where, at long last, they would be able to be with the true objects of their desire and their life would finally be meaningful.

Second, whether or not a given individual is familiar with Marxist theory, it is hard for most people to imagine their wishes being granted without the intervening elements of our current society being conveniently swept away. Sometimes this means blowing up buildings, as in the film Fight Club, and sometimes the mechanism is even sillier, as in the graphic novel series Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan, where every male besides the protagonist has been kind enough to die of plague.

But all this raises the following question: if Gladwell thinks that people can accomplish thin-slicing in the here and now, is this kind of intensely desired ideological thin-slicing already happening? The answer is definitively yes. In a recent post to his blog Acephalous, our own Scott Kaufman tackled the following statement: “Many domestic novels open at physical thresholds—such as windows or doorways—to problematize the the relation between interiors and exteriors” (Amy Kaplan, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture 43).

Scott writes:

The nature of the claim-structure is backwards here: I believe X, and “many” cherry-picked novels begin by thematizing it.... The “many” employed in this passage obscures the fact that many, many more domestic novels don’t open at physical thresholds.  It also conceals the reason why many domestic novels would do so: they’re domestic.  We should expect thresholds and windows to appear frequently for the same reason we expect spaceships to make regular appearances in space operas.  Why even make the claim?  Why not focus on how often tables or children appear instead?

The answer is that the relation between interiors and exteriors is a major concern of contemporary theory, when it is understood to mean the relationship between the “inner lives” of persons, and the structure of their society. The question concerning subjectivity effectively pares the domestic novel down to its windows and doorways. 

This is only the tiniest example of the kind of cultic privileging that has begun to crop up everywhere in philosophical, political, and cultural discourses. It is strongly related to the rhetorical efficacy of specialized languages and dense symbolic imagery, because these establish the conditions for the projection of a winnowed world. I will use Slavoj Zizek as an example, because my next post will use him as a reference: even the majority of his admirers cannot help but worry that his continual recourse to Marx and Lacan has left him with little to do besides repeat himself against a changing backdrop of examples. As Adam Kotsko wrote in a review of The Parallax View, “many of the later books come to seem like an attempt to push forward a Zizekian ‘take’ on every academic trend that comes along.”

The same phenomenon of iteration is visible everywhere on the blogosphere, where the daily effort of writing polemics and responding to commenters leads finally to an exhausted self-awareness. For example, the blogger Twisty at the feminist blog I Blame The Patriarchy writes sentences like, “I frequently beat this dead horse, but I can’t help noticing that, despite my repeated floggings, there abounds a great confusion concerning the constituent aspects of ‘the feminine’.”

The point is not that Zizek, or even a given blogger, is actually wrong about the subject under discussion. The point is how uneasy we feel whenever we get the feeling that another person’s thinking, their entire Weltanschauung, has become mechanical, iterative, even self-awarely so. Furthermore, the reduction of the world by ideology makes fellowship dependent on agreement: the essential bonds of social affection get tied up in the divisive ideological requirement of conversion.

The good news is that Zizek and apocalyptic art, at their best, are perfectly positioned to help us understand mechanistic ideology. My next post will look to Zizek’s book The Ticklish Subject, and Alfonso Cuarón’s film Children of Men, as signposts towards a different kind of ideology, one that transcends the repetitive idiocy of thin-slicing and embraces O’Hara’s manifesto. 


Doesn’t apocalypse almost always have a component of not-too-hidden desire to it?  Apocalypses were classically religious events that destroyed the old world and prepared the way for the new kingdom of God, or the next cycle.  One problem that I have with the current Theoretical focus on apocalypse is that it’s such a premodern concept; there’s really nothing intrinsically Marxist, say, about it, even though it’s often dressed up in Marxist or postmodern clothing.

Another problem that I have with it is its complacency.  Look at the summary linked to and all the “world already ended” material.  Nowhere in there that I noticed is a link to any actual scientific material about anthropogenic global climate change.  It would spoil the mood to approach this as a question that it might actually be possible to answer, a problem that people could actually work on.  I remember all the jeering that took place, say, with Adam Roberts’ series on truth; it’s apparently seen as rude to talk about it “naively”.  With that focus, of course apocalypticism looks relevant—if you can’t do anything, a sudden impossible-to-predict break that changes everything seems like a good idea.  But it isn’t really from the helplessness of a culture, it’s from the learned helplessness of a small academic subculture.

Apocalypticism was, of course, big in SF in the 60s.  Tom Disch, whose novel The Genocides was an expression of apocalyptic desire, is still writing poetry (I chose one at near-random) in his aptly named blog, Endzone.  But it’s a 60s and 70s phenomenon in SF.  People have been there, done that; it’s odd that it’s now being “discovered”.  (The best apocalyptic SF book, in my opinion, is probably Ward Moore’s _Greener Than You Think_, written 1947 according to my copy.) The archetype for current SF is a lot more flow-oriented, something like Bruce Sterling (who has a global climate change oriented Viridian mailing list that has just, by the way, declared victory).

By on 01/28/07 at 01:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

My guess would be that apocalyptic fantasies always combine ideology and desire, as you suggest. The natures of both may change, as will the nature of the imagined catastrophe, so that each age (perhaps now each generation) has its own apocalypses. Certainly, millenarian thinking has a history going back long before Marxism.

The fact that these psychological elements are in play does not say anything about whether the fearful part of the fantasy is justified. One of the things I admired about An Inconvenient Truth was the way that it ended with constructive proposals, rather than giving in to defeatism like George Sibley.

The films, television shows, and novels I’m discussing here are not at all confined to academia; a feeling of helplessness may be implicit in many different popular artworks, but explicitly theorized primarily by academics and other intellectuals.

Helplessness isn’t limited to the feeling that one can’t do anything; it can also stem from the reasonable idea that no matter what one does, political change requires an entire movement. Furthermore, in most of these artworks there is a confusion between personal desires (for example, the “amorous” desires to which Sinthome refers) and the desire for a common good, because the point of the “small band of survivors” is that the personal and the political are fused once and for all.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/28/07 at 02:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Very nice post - I look forward to the next installment.  When you mentioned Scott’s post, I actually thought you might be intending to go somewhere else (although where you did go makes perfect sense, as well):  one of the thoughts I had when this discussion erupted was that there were tacit quantitative claims being made in some interventions - claims that there was a greater amount of apocalyptic sentiment, or at least representation of apocalyptic sentiment in popular culture, now than in the past. 

One of the things that Scott’s post problematises quite well is:  how do we know this?  It may well be true, but the task of demonstrating its truth is actually immense - to the degree that I’m personally fairly agnostic on what we would find.  Offhand, I think someone could make a strong case (and, as I interpret them, some of k-punk’s interventions have actually raised this issue) that apocalyptic imagery has been quite prominent since at least the ‘50s - and, in picking this date, I’m not trying to suggest one couldn’t go back further - only that I have reasonably direct knowledge back to this point. 

I wonder whether it might be more productive to reach for whether there has been some kind of qualitative shift in the character of apocalypticism - a direction that Sinthome perhaps suggests in recent posts that hint at the possibility to subsume apocalyptic discourses into the phenomenon of discourses of victimisation (note that I’m not sure this is how Sinthome would characterise the argument - I mention it only as something that struck me while reading the recent posts at Larval Subjects)... 

If the focus remains on the quantitative issue, we may miss more interesting shifts - and also, perhaps, fall into a pop culture common sense feeling that such things are more common now - a feeling that may itself be worthy of problematisation.

Note that I’m not aiming these comments at your post, which approaches the issue from a qualitative, not quantitative, direction - just free associating in a slightly different direction from Scott’s post.

By N. Pepperell on 01/28/07 at 07:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s chronos/chairos, isn’t it?  The thin-sliced band of survivors is always a problem; they exist like an unwanted surplus of chronos in the new chairos-dispensation.  You don’t, for instance, mention the Left Behind series, which treats (for its own noisome ideological reasons) exactly these sorts of survivors as exactly what they are: a kind of abject, excluded from the Rapture of the Loons.

Hope I’m not being too oblique here.  It seems to me that the “sudden impossible-to-predict break that changes everything” that Rich quite properly deprecates in his comment is another way of talking about the persistent yearning for chairos, instead of looking flat-in-the-face the fact that chronos is what we’re stuck with, like it or not.  And that we need to get used to living in it, long-term.

By Adam Roberts on 01/28/07 at 07:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Nowhere in there that I noticed is a link to any actual scientific material about anthropogenic global climate change.  It would spoil the mood to approach this as a question that it might actually be possible to answer, a problem that people could actually work on.”

Wow, again, clueless.

First I don’t know that any of them are approaching this as a question to be answered, so much as they are trying to understand it. And, of course, there are many scientists doing good scientific work on climate change. Some are even getting political, though this may be a little too late. Because, as I’m sure you know, even the most optimistic reports on peak oil (with any validity) have us running out of oil within two decades. And, on the climate change front, it is very likely that we have already passed at least one tipping point. These things being likely true in the positivist sense means that one way of working on this is to change the way we think about the world in order to begin to act differently. Now OF COURSE this isn’t the only work to be done and it isn’t even likely the most pressing issue, but it is still a way of working on it.

When all these blogs get together and claim “This is the most important work to be doing! Only our theoretical work will save the world!” maybe your oddly egotistical critisms will have some validity. Maybe you should get a blog and post ‘actual science’ on climate change. I’d even link to it, as my own advisor makes me read ‘actual science’ and ‘actual economics’. 


This is a really interesting and rich blog piece. Don’t have much to add to what you’ve said, but I respect it.

By on 01/28/07 at 07:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Offhand, I think someone could make a strong case (and, as I interpret them, some of k-punk’s interventions have actually raised this issue) that apocalyptic imagery has been quite prominent since at least the ‘50s - and, in picking this date, I’m not trying to suggest one couldn’t go back further - only that I have reasonably direct knowledge back to this point.

I grew up in the 50s reading “how-to-do-it” articles on backyard fallout shelters in Mechanics Illustrated and Popular Science. I also grew up watching Godzilla movies from Japan. A friend of mine, David Porush, wrote a 1976 or 77 disseration on apocalypse in the American novel. 

As for ideological thin-slicing, isn’t that how one gets Big Ideas in the humanities? If you slice it right, then others will find examples to go along with yours and a certain investigative field will be mined.

By Bill Benzon on 01/28/07 at 11:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Quick, everyone: learn German, then read Jacob Taubes, Abendländische Eschatologie (Beiträge zur Soziologie und Sozialphilosophie, Bd. 3).  Against all odds, he connects apocalyptic to Marxism!  And the book is written in German, so you know his scholarship is impeccable.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/28/07 at 12:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

N. Pepperell, my sense of the quantitative shift is that it’s declining.  This is based on treating SF as The Literature of Apocalypticism, which is clearly an oversimplification at best, but bear with me for a moment.  As far as I remember, early Wells-Verne SF was mostly exploratory-adventure in theme, and it was the 40s and 50s that started to see the end-of-the-world subgenre, with it reaching its most elaborated forms in the 60s and 70s; think most of PKD, or Delany’s _Dhalgren_.  The classic forms of contemporary SF are hopeful, not only with regard to ends of the world, but in envisioning changes in politics as well; you have Iain Banks and his anarcho-socialist books, Bruce Sterling writing about the end of work or about temporary autonomous zones, China Mieville re-envisioning revolution.  Within SF, end-of-the-world will always be an enduring trope, but this simply isn’t the moment of apocalypticism.

Adam Roberts’ remarks about the yearning for kairos (that’s how I’ve seen it spelled) seem quite right.  Since kairos is connected to kairosis, “the feeling of integration experienced by the reader of the novel or epic form; it is experienced by the reader as the central protagonist’s character and characterisation faces crisis and resolves itself into an explored and integrated personality” (from wiki), I’m interested to see how Joseph is going to connect this with poetry.

APS, you’re flaming again.  But, you know, if you’re going to be talking about tipping points and oil running out, those are claims about the physical world, and it might be good to at least try to check out what scientists actually think, so that you know that you’re not cherry-picking your “facts” to fit your literary theme.  Your best bet for global warming is probably to read RealClimate, though you could also read the summaries of the IPCC reports if you really wanted to.

By on 01/28/07 at 03:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich - I’m agnostic on the quantitative issue - I don’t think it’s an impossible question to investigate, but I think it’s a difficult one.  It may be the case that, as you suggest, the theme is declining in science fiction (I’m agnostic on this, as well, though, as there’s a certain tendency to define historical trends by what come to be viewed as canonical or representative texts, which might ot might not correspond to the sheer weight of more… er… drecky material published in a given period - again, I think this is an issue Scott has problematised quite well on his blog from time to time).  Regardless:  even if there were a demonstrable quantitative shift in one genre, one would still have to ask whether this just means that the explicit thematisation of the issue had shifted to another genre, etc.  None of this is to suggest that the issue couldn’t be studied - only that it ought to be studied or, at the least, that quantitative claims ought to be underlined with an explicit tentativeness until it has been.

That said, though, I agree with Bill (and, from memory, k-punk has made similar points) that there was an… everydayness about some earlier instantiations of secular apocalyptic concepts that - to me, at least - doesn’t seem to have been replicated even in the global warming discourses.  I used to collect fallout shelter related materials in sheer admiration for their macabre banality… And there were intense paroxysms of crisis discourse in the ‘70s, perhaps, very gesturally here, as the uncertainties of structural transformation reinforced and/or were deflected into other kinds of crisis anxieties…

So I’m not unsympathetic with the notion that there might have been a quantitative decline - just maintaining an in principle agnosticism to underscore the point that it’s very easy to fall into quantitative claims that themselves voice cultural tropes, rather than factual knowledge…

By N. Pepperell on 01/28/07 at 03:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My mistake; Rich is right; it is ‘kairos’ not ‘chairos’, kappa not chi.  Sloppy of me.  [I tripped myself up, I think, because ‘chairo’ in Ancient Greek means ‘to rejoice, be glad, be delighted’; so I was subconsciously importing the rapturousness of rapture into Kermode’s more measured ‘the right time’ kairos]

By Adam Roberts on 01/28/07 at 03:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich: As far as I remember, early Wells-Verne SF was mostly exploratory-adventure in theme, and it was the 40s and 50s that started to see the end-of-the-world subgenre, with it reaching its most elaborated forms in the 60s and 70s; think most of PKD, or Delany’s _Dhalgren_.

There’s an argument that this sort of apocalypticism is a fin-de-siecle thing, actually: I recently examined a very good PhD thesis on precisely this.  So the first ‘end of the world’ stories come not from the 1940s but the 1790s and 1800s (One big and influential, though not the first, such text was de Grainville’s Le dernier homme in 1805).  This vogue then reoccurred in the 1890s (Wells’s Martians, or his various end-of-world fantasies—and he wrote a fair few of those—or Flammarion’s La Fin du Monde, 1893).  Arguably the 1990s saw a similar flurry: from Independence Day to the X-Files, from Left Behind (1995) to the first proper cultural penetration of doomsday environmentalist scenarios.  It makes sense to think that the anxiety of the century’s-end spills over into the new century a little bit; hence a perfectly run-of-the-mill (run-of-the-jungle) action-adventure film styles itself, rather jarringly, as the imminent end of the Mayan world and calls itself Apocalypto.

These dates, these fins des siecles, are on one level perfectly arbitrary of course; but on another they orchestrate cultural anxieties about ‘endings’, which is exactly what Kermode’s book is about.

By Adam Roberts on 01/28/07 at 04:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Actual scientists do think those things. I’ve even been able to, with great difficulty, parse out their scientific language and figure out what these reports were trying to tell people. It’s amazing, the power of reading. I’m not one of those people that blame everything on global warming, so please, let’s not be patronizing.

You’re still missing the point, but I think you prefer it that way.

P.S. Why is the security word ‘anti69’? You guys don’t just hate religion, you hate all the good stuff in life.

By on 01/28/07 at 04:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Anthony, cheers. Kotsko, I have been trying to think of the word “eschatological” for two days. For this relief much thanks.

It does matter that apocalyptic thinking is around a lot right now; that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t also been a trend at other times, only that now is a reasonable moment to discuss it. Acclaimed writers like Cormac McCarthy have switched to the post-apocalyptic scene, and now is the aftermath of the phenomenal success of the Left Behind series. In terms of my own personal experiences, terrorism and environmental change come up in discussion more frequently now than seven years ago. (9/11 is one obvious reason; An Inconvenient Truth and the worry [founded or not] that Katrina was related to climate change is another.) A quantitive increase can be significant even if it is not at all unprecedented.

It’s also worth mentioning fantasy and superhero culture here, for two reasons. First of all, such artworks frequently have a plot that hinges on the threat of apocalypse. Second, even though fans of comic books, graphic novels, fantasy, and sci-fi have been familiar with such themes for decades, it makes a difference when Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, Batman Begins, and the rest suddenly define Hollywood’s blockbuster output.

My answer to the questions put forward here all tend to be yes. This stuff has been done before, it is a question of desire, there is a kind of impatience writ large that we could helpfully describe as kairos, and thin-slicing is presently the standard form of theoretical innovation. These are all helpful ways of bringing the matter into focus.

The form “doesn’t this...” carries with it the temptation of reduction or condescension, of the form “isn’t this a kind of thinking mistake that we see often and rightly avoid?” Here my thinking is similar to Zizek’s. I don’t want to be like the doctor in Annie Hall who tells little Alvy to enjoy life while he can, in response to Alvy’s point that the universe will eventually disperse into nothingness. It’s worth taking these fantasies seriously, “traversing” them in Lacanian terms, even if we think the current form of their articulation is unsupportable.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/28/07 at 04:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s difficult to say, because end-of-the-world has always been a common trope of SF; you can find stories with it from any period.  But the association with dates sounds reasonable.  If we accept it, though, look at the nature of the stories around each date.  The ones around the 1800s I’m not well-read enough to be familiar with.  The ones from around the 1900s I persist in thinking of as not really hopeless—Wells’s Martians, for instance, were taken out by microbes before they did any more than local damage.  The story was really about how there *couldn’t* be an extraterrestrial end of the world that wasn’t adjusted to conditions here.

The ones from the 2000s, at least those you’ve mentioned, still seem decadent to me.  The vitality is gone out of them; they are pastiches or long-overdue copyings of material from decades ago.

So I still think that, although there may be bursts of apocalyptic SF around each 00 date, the real action, such as it was, was 1945-1980.

By on 01/28/07 at 04:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Anthony, no, most scientists do not think that we have passed a tipping point with regard to global warming and that there’s nothing we can do.  And scientists do think that oil is running out, but that doesn’t equate to there’s-nothing-we-can-do followed by a sudden crash.  The sense in which the linked articles were cherry-picking is apparent; they want to find an external justification for their perception of helplessness.

By on 01/28/07 at 04:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, I didn’t mean to imply that it wasn’t worth discussing.  There’s a lot of SF reference in the thread, though, and I think it’s worth clarifying whether this is a development in SF or the appropriation of older SF tropes that aren’t really current within SF anymore.  Obviously I think that it’s the latter.

The apocalyptic text for the current moment is, I think, _Dr. Strangelove_.  People are worried about apocalypse as stupid blunder by ideologues—I think that encompasses both 9/11 and Katrina.  The Antichrist is, symbolically, Bush.  That’s the connection with a good number of the other movies you’re mentioned, I think; Harry Potter for instance is really all about political dysfunction.

By on 01/28/07 at 05:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, that makes good sense to me: the mainstream reprise of apocalyptic tropes is an appropriation, rather than something entirely new.

I’m going to argue that the text of the moment is Children of Men, but I’ve probably seen Dr. Strangelove more times than I’ve seen any other movie, and I agree that it is an incomparable satire of dangerous autocracy.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/28/07 at 05:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

When it happens in pre-literate cultures, it’s called nativist revivalism. When it happens among us, its apocalypticism.

I’d toss yearning for The Coming Singularity into the mix as well—somewhere around here John Emerson called it “The Rapture for geeks.” This, of course, is a positive apacalypse rather than a negative one.

By Bill Benzon on 01/28/07 at 05:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

...sometimes the mechanism is even sillier, as in the graphic novel series Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan, where every male besides the protagonist has been kind enough to die of plague.

Yes, the “gendercide” is conceptually silly, but the charm is in the execution—Buffy, to my mind, is another such example.  What both share—besides the bond between their authors, as Whedon’s slated to take over Vaughn’s other book, <a href=http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/078512358X/diesekoschmar-20">The Runaways</a>—is a commitment to characterization in the face of absurdity.  That is to say, the desire to create meaningful human relations under the aegis of absurdity.  The collapse of this premise at various moments is what makes these works dance—you know, the small human moments when the fictional conceit collides with the world we know in a way which is knowing without being cloying.  In other words, I don’t think Y - The Last Man an example of thin-slicing as you define it here, largely because its trajectory moves in precisely the opposite direction: it’s about the recreation of a world, returning it to its pre-absurd-premise state of perpetual decline.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 01/28/07 at 06:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

An aside: Rich, the link to Disch’s blog is incredible, both in itself and for the comment left by John Crowley.  Adam’s recent doth-protest-too-muches notwithstanding, it points to one of the genuinely unique features of The Coming Blog Singularity: the ability to see, instantly, the sorts of exchanges which normally only became generally available after the death of one (or both) parties.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 01/28/07 at 06:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s a long way from goal-oriented thinking to “repetetive idiocy”.  Someone who approaches circumstances, no matter what they might be, and always seems to end up in the same position, might well be repeating him/herself and even doing so idiotically; that person might also be engaging in some cod-Gladwellian “thin-slicing”.  But surely it needn’t be that way, and if Gladwell is so uncreative as only to take occupational examples, well, it’s not as if Gladwell is the first person to produce this sort of idea.  (Consider, say, Aristotle.) Actually, if I recall the NYer article that served as an advertisement for Blink, one of his examples was Wayne Gretzky, who probably didn’t encounter too many noticeably similar hockey scenarios.  I presume, anyway, that the configuration on the ice, positions, momentums, who the players were, etc, were not often the same from game to game, and that, while the overarching goal (to score, or prevent scoring) may have been the same, considerable automatic creativity is called for to achieve the goal in any particular circumstance.  You didn’t say it, of course, but “repetetive idiocy” sounds as if you think that “thin-slicing” is codifiable or reducible to an algorithm that’s extremely fast to execute.  The Zizek reference adds to this impression: take stock reasoning and feed topic X as input.  But that’s a poor caricature of the phenomenon.  I guess this depends on whether you take the “patterns” in the quotation from Gladwell (I’ve not read the book) to be repeatable, and instantiated in the present situation, or not necessarily repeatable or repeated schematizations of the present situation, or something else entirely; even if it’s the former, I don’t know that the repetetive idiocy/algorithmic analysis holds, but that could be because I’m inclined to think of Goethe seeing the Urpflanze in situations like this, or Lear on Aristotle on the virtues.

I would also think that it’s not really uneasiness but disinterest and boredom we experience when we see that someone’s mechanical in some respect or other.  If you’ve got the mechanism, you’ve got the person entire, at least as applied to the subject under discussion, and if you’ve got the person entire, there’s nothing more to discover, so—done.

By ben wolfson on 01/28/07 at 07:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joe - I agree with this:

It’s worth taking these fantasies seriously, “traversing” them in Lacanian terms, even if we think the current form of their articulation is unsupportable.

But, in order to take such fantasies seriously, we also need a sense of what they are - which might include gaining an understanding of whether certain kinds of claims about quantitative trends and trajectories must themselves be interpreted as part of the fantasy… ;-) In other words, when I suggest caution in accepting quantitative claims at face value, I’m doing this with an eye to taking the discourse seriously, not dismissing or reducing it:  the perception of the way in which the discourse is trending is itself a qualitative dimension of the discourse… (Not that you were necessarily referring to me in the passage I’ve quoted - just felt that impulse to keep beating my dead horse a bit more… ;-P)

By N. Pepperell on 01/28/07 at 08:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The point is how uneasy we feel whenever we get the feeling that another person’s thinking, their entire Weltanschauung, has become mechanical, iterative, even self-awarely so.

For whatever it’s worth, Bergson defined that situation as the Comic. Evidence of thin-slicing, he would say, would elicit laughter rather than unease; but maybe they’re two sides of the same coin.

By on 01/28/07 at 10:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

See James Berger’s excellent *After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse*.

By on 01/28/07 at 11:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph: “This is only the tiniest example of the kind of cultic privileging that has begun to crop up everywhere in philosophical, political, and cultural discourses. It is strongly related to the rhetorical efficacy of specialized languages and dense symbolic imagery, because these establish the conditions for the projection of a winnowed world.”

The bit about the winnowed world is essentially the same thing that I meant by cherry-picking.  Perhaps because of its coincidence in time with this post, perhaps because “cultural” projections about global warming may really be relevant to this thread, I’m going to quote excerpts from Bruce Sterling’s “Viridian Note 00487: We Are Winning”:

“The 2012 deadline for Kyoto is already a dead
letter, because Kyoto was far too weak and too slow. 
We are going to see a series of monstrous efforts by
large enterprises: private, local, state and national,
to save whatever can be saved of the previous natural
order.  The primary motivator of this effort will
be fear.  The climate is changing much more quickly
and more severely than anyone suspected it would. 
A rapid, ruthless, headlong clean-tech techno-
revolution == in fact, a series of them == is
the only global option with a ghost of a chance to
save our smoldering planetary bacon.  That’s coming;
it is under way.”


“These are three stages in
successfully changing culture:  “That’s ridiculous,”
“it’s true but trivial,” “I always said so.” Terra
Rossa are Christian white-green albedo right-wing
greens.  Do you understand what this means?  The right
cannot go away.  The right you always have with you. When the right steals your clothes, that means you win.”


“This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this happen.
I remember when there was such a thing as “cyberpunk”:
visionaries in the early 1980s writing farfetched,
daring stories that predicted that someday there would
be a world rather like the late 1990s.  We didn’t
create that world, but it was obvious.  Now the prefix
“cyber” has gone away == not because it failed, but
because it is EVERYWHERE.  There is nothing left now
that isn’t “cyber.” The “virtual” is going away, too.
The word “actual” is older than the word “virtual,” so
when the one subsumes the other, the virtual vanishes
and becomes the actual.”


“Genuine climate mayhem is underway.  It is
intensifying fast.  People are going to die: of heat,
of disease, freezing, starving, drowning and dying of
thirst.  Not in mere tens of thousands as they
did in the Paris heatwave, but in hecatombs.  We
have a global climate crisis.  A real one, not a futurist
speculation.  People are going to make agonizing
sacrifices in increasingly frantic efforts
to ameliorate that and redress that crisis.  Then, next
year, they will discover that the situation
is vastly worse than then imagined, and the spillage
of blood and treasure and sacred honor that they
thought would surely help is a fraction of what was necessary.”

I quoted enough to, hopefully, give people the flavor of it.  It’s not optimistic, obviously, but it’s not apocalyptic either.

By on 01/28/07 at 11:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, your defense of Y: The Last Man touches on all the themes I try to cover in my next entry. I am indebted to your phrasing: “the recreation of a world.” I think there is an additional element of satire in the way that Buffy and presumably also Vaughn’s series deal with apocalyptic expectations.

N. Pepperell, I can definitely understand your desire to insist on qualitative readings of apocalypse fever, and like your point that calling something a “trend” influences (perhaps even creates, in some limited sphere) the trend itself. In any case, I do have to return your raspberry by pointing out that you, along with Sinthome, K-Punk, and others, instigated all this! In fine fashion, too.

The element of folly in repetition can be comic, boring, or disturbing depending on our subjective constitutions, and the amount of power the ideologue appears to wield over us. I would say, except in situations where we find ourselves in real danger, that I second Bergson’s (and Dave’s) nomination of the Comic.

Ben, I can’t speculate on what is a poor caricature of what, but I can say that what strikes you as patently ridiculous is exactly what Gladwell means by thin-slicing. He is extremely fond of presenting apparently complex things, such as a discussion between a feuding couple, and proving that only a few gestures, present or absent, predict whether they will stay together. Same with tennis serves, art fakes, etc. According to Gladwell, the apparent complexity of something like a hockey game is usually an illusion—make of that what you will.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/29/07 at 03:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

LOL!  Yes, but I actually explicitly bracketed the issue of apocalypticism in my intervention into this discussion, using the conversation on apocalypticism as an excuse to explore the more general question of how psychological theory might be best situated within the context of critical theory - refracted through an attempt to tease out some differences between Sinthome’s and Adorno’s appropriations of psychoanalytic theory in the service of critique.  I don’t remember expressing an opinion on whether apocalyptic ideals are trending in any particular direction: my concerns were more abstract.

I’m using your post here, in a sense, to develop similarly tangential thoughts - to mention something that had been nagging me in the background in that original discussion (not my discussion with Sinthome, but the overarching discussion), which my tangent didn’t provide an easy way for me to open up.  Aren’t you lucky?  ;-P

By N. Pepperell on 01/29/07 at 04:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Anthony, no, most scientists do not think that we have passed a tipping point with regard to global warming and that there’s nothing we can do.”

Frankly, I don’t care what “most scientists” think about tipping points. I’d prefer to hear from those in related fields (for instance, a physicist may very well think we haven’t passed any tipping points, but his work doesn’t really address the phenomenon). This is a pretty common move by those who are not real scientists but ascribe to some kind of ‘scientistic’ superiority. Someone will say something about x and they will respond “Most scientists don’t think that”, when it’s really quite silly to appeal to ‘scientists’.

For all that, I don’t know what the consensus is on the issue of any tipping points, though most of the stuff I’ve seen on peak oil suggests that we don’t have much time left (in the grand scheme - talking between ~50-150 years) before economy (oil) and the environment collide. I don’t personally think that there is ‘nothing’ to be done about this and am hopeful, albeit against most of the evidence I’ve seen, that we will figure something out. I have spoken with informally with many ecologists who came through the Center for Nature and Culture last year who did seem to think that we’ve done some damage that won’t be easily reversible and in that way we have passed some kind of tipping point. This isn’t apocalyptic, just really bad.

This notion of cherry-picking is also a bit disingenuous, no? As if it’s valid for a pseudo-scientist (yourself) to complain about cultural theorists and philosophers cherry picking from some scientific information, but not for scientists of any stripe (though they apparently are all of one stripe for you) to do the same with cultural theory or philosophy. Science isn’t exactly a united house, so it is quite difficult to know who to believe without reading everything. Still, you are quite missing the point of those posts in your own distance trolling way.

Yes, distance trolling should be included in the new metablogging.

By on 01/29/07 at 12:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All the less reason to take Gladwell’s version seriously, then.

By ben wolfson on 01/29/07 at 12:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

According to Gladwell, the apparent complexity of something like a hockey game is usually an illusion—make of that what you will.

If he really says that, or something like, then I’d take him with more than a few grains of salt. Hockey is complex, no illusion; same with chess, and lots of other things. But, some kinds of complexity can be dealt with by acquiring huge heaping gobs of patterns and then simply recognizing which ones apply in real time. The brain is good at that sort of thing.

That’s a very different kind of ability from that required to follow and construct complex lines of observation, evidence, inference, and conclusion. The expert chess player, thus, might not be able to write a coherent account of game play because he can’t manage all that construction required in writing prose.

By Bill Benzon on 01/29/07 at 12:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Anthony, if you looked at which links I recommended, you’d see that I’m recommending the consensus of climate scientists working in relevant fields, not of all scientists.

Most of the stuff that I’ve seen on peak oil suggests that we are already at or past the point of peak oil.  It’s just that there is no sudden catatrophe when we reach the point of peak production.  Gas gets more expensive and stays expensive and people start to replace oil with other fuels.  The question is how fast and how sucessfully the replacement can be done; it’s only catastrophic if production declines more quickly than replacement.

Any ecologist will say that we have done some damage that is not reversible, because we have.  Ecologists may well say that we “may” have passed a tipping point of some kind; it’s very difficult to know. 

All of this makes a very important difference between damage / danger and apocalypticism.

The message box exchange that we’ve had, brief as it is, is already more reference to science than was in any of the previously linked-to material that I saw.

By on 01/29/07 at 02:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, as my friend Liam Heneghan was found of saying, the first world will probably be ok. It may well be that you’re painting far too optimistic a picture of oil and replacement fuels, but I think it is very likely from the stuff I’ve seen that, for people like you and I, it is simply damage and our lives will be marginally more difficult to navigate. For those in the third world it may well be that the effects of this collision between economy and ecology will signify a great deal more suffering. Like you say, it is hard to know and cultural apocalypticism is one way of talking about that (my advisor has a great passage about “the apocalypse already happening” that then goes on to list a variety of normal ways people suffer, like a child dying of diarrhoea or being beaten by a parent - I prefer this way of speaking about it personally). My issue with you is not that I think you’re all that scientistic (you are, but other are much worse), but that you are so disparaging of work that is valuable or even interesting without really giving it much time. Yeah, K-Punk doesn’t reference science often (maybe ever, but I’m not sure about that), but he’s talking about cultural artefacts and claims about the world in different ways than science makes those claims. Why not read both.

By on 01/29/07 at 07:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, a quick note: I agree with you about the real complexities of these environments (for example, of a game like hockey or chess). I think about it this way: a series of simple rules can create a very steep learning curve, if one is starting from zero. This was certainly true of my own experiences with chess, reading up on basic openings and combinatory attacks. It is also true of literature, in that there is a readily available store of truisms about major works that serves even professional literary critics (sometimes, by giving them an opportunity to dissent).

The work of criticism, of elegant play, and of ideology becomes massively more complicated at a higher level of detail, with less return. They do begin to require increasingly dense practices of observation, categorization, inference, and conclusion.

Even still, this is where I believe the task of worthwhile writing begins; “the construction required in writing prose,” as you put it.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/30/07 at 03:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Historian David Bell, writing in the Los Angeles Times, talks about American apocalyticism in the wake of 9/11. He makes it clear the he believes the apocalyptic rhetoric is vastly overblown, pointing out (in his opening paragraph), that it would take one 9/11 scale attack every six hours over a period of four years to reach the 20M death toll that the Soviet Union suffered in WWII (he says little about destruction of physical property). He argues that such over-reaction is grounded in attitudes that originate in the Enlightenment:

Seeing international conflict in apocalyptic terms — viewing every threat as existential — is hardly a uniquely American habit. To a certain degree, it is a universal human one. But it is also, more specifically, a Western one, which paradoxically has its origins in one of the most optimistic periods of human history: the 18th century Enlightenment.

Until this period, most people in the West took warfare for granted as an utterly unavoidable part of the social order. Western states fought constantly and devoted most of their disposable resources to this purpose; during the 1700s, no more than six or seven years passed without at least one major European power at war.

The Enlightenment, however, popularized the notion that war was a barbaric relic of mankind’s infancy, an anachronism that should soon vanish from the Earth. Human societies, wrote the influential thinkers of the time, followed a common path of historical evolution from savage beginnings toward ever-greater levels of peaceful civilization, politeness and commercial exchange.

The unexpected consequence of this change was that those who considered themselves “enlightened,” but who still thought they needed to go to war, found it hard to justify war as anything other than an apocalyptic struggle for survival against an irredeemably evil enemy. In such struggles, of course, there could be no reason to practice restraint or to treat the enemy as an honorable opponent.

By Bill Benzon on 01/30/07 at 06:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Here’s more that seems directly on the subject from Tom Disch.  Note the insistence that it was already too late in the 1970s, which as far as I understand the science involved is not true.

By on 02/04/07 at 10:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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